Managing Director's Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?
This past year I founded a student organization called the Student Interfaith Dialogue. That might or might not seem much of an accomplishment, until I tell you it was on campus in the Texas panhandle. Canyon, Texas is arguably, one of the more politically and religiously conservative places in the country. One of the more essential lessons I learned was that in this time and in this place, we must begin to listen to one another.
There are too many people in the world who are demonized or marginalized because of their beliefs or philosophies. We do not understand what ‘they’ believe, therefore we are afraid, and we avoid, or worse yet, violently lash out. Those have been the tactics for far too long. We must begin to act as a community creating space for every single person who makes up humanity. Yes, I do mean every single person, even those that we might label prejudiced. I think we all agree that they were not born with those opinions.
How did they get to that point? Is there some piece of information you might have, or some amazing person you could introduce them to, that could change their opinion, if only a fraction?
The first step along this process is communication. We must be willing to keep our opinions to ourselves for a while, and truly listen. The best way to learn is to simply listen, and you might be surprised by what you learn. Opening dialogues in a safe space where absolutely everyone is welcome is the next step in the interfaith process. No leaving anyone out, not our politically or religiously conservative counterparts, and most certainly not our Atheist brothers and sisters.
I understand that we are not going to change everyone’s mind, but if you genuinely listened and honestly sought to understand their point of view you can at least walk away knowing that you did your part to eliminate another small bit of hate in our society. Do not fret if you were not successful in "changing their minds." What you most certainly have done is broken off a chunk of their stereotype block. It starts at the individual level. From those foundational exchanges, building relationships within communities that are strengthened by the promise of finding value and appreciation of every individual, those of us engaged in interfaith on a regular basis can begin to build intercultural alliances working toward making much larger difference in our society.
I founded an Interfaith Dialogue on my college campus, West Texas A&M, and from that experience grew a desire to work in the non-profit field. I am studying for my comprehensive exams for my Masters in History. In five years I want to be working for a nonprofit interfaith organization, but in the mean time I am learning a great deal as a VISTA. This year I will serve at a Multicultural Initiative at Salt Lake Community College.